Saving The World Is Hard -- So Is Conference Organizing

For many decades, I’ve plied my trade in the finding-fault-with-others industry. Ad critic, media critic, social critic. It’s a decent living, all comfortably indoors. I’ll leave it for you to decide whether I am a vigilant watchdog or just a parasite, but either way, criticism has its place in the world.

The problem is: identifying what the problem is gets you only so far.

As the media economy increasingly found itself blown to bits by the digital revolution – and with the very existence of journalism hanging in the balance – I resolved to try for once in my life to seek solutions. And so the Media Future Summit was born.

This is an annual gathering under the joint auspices of MediaPost, the Wharton Future of Advertising Program at the University of Pennsylvania and the trade associations representing the entirety of the media/marketing ecosystem.  



Every autumn, we tap owners, bosses and academics to convene for an entire business day and compare notes about business models, revenue streams, allies, adversaries, ethics, expediency, scale, sustainability, harebrained schemes, strokes of genius and everything else that concerns our mutual existential crisis.  

It’s an experience… less business conference than marriage encounter.

It’s also all (ironically) off the record, so the coin of the realm is truth. Plus, everybody gets an extremely rugged tote bag.

Oh, and you’re not invited.  Probably. To attend the Media Future Summit, you have to be a pretty big big shot, tapped by one of our 10 co-hosts or partner trade associations to participate. The privilege entitles you to do God’s work in preserving a crucial sector of the economy and the society.  I

It also entitles you to pay an obscene sum for your badge and to devote an entire day to the process.  

“Congratulations! You’ve been honored with an invitation to MFS! Please block out all of Nov. 16 and give us your credit-card number!”

This is not an obvious marketing strategy, and yet, in its first two years, the MFS was fully attended and yielded exactly the level of idea-exchange, candor, news from the front lines and even occasional confrontation we envisioned. We succeeded partly because it is small.

Once the head count surpasses 80, intimacy begins to evaporate. There are a zillion conferences with content, no matter how compelling, that is essentially passive.  We like the fur to fly.

And now here we are again. The Media Future Summit convenes at the Penn Club in New York City in three weeks. The agenda is mainly set. The delegation is coalescing. But getting back to the headline here, lurking within the quest for solutions to a problem that puts at risk nothing less than American democracy, is another problem: I am really bad at this job.

Oh, I’m solid at identifying journalistic weaknesses in reporting at The New York Times and the inherent corruption of Fox News Channel. I am terrible at the impresario racket. Most especially, I am terrible at threading the needle of creating awareness while maintaining exclusivity.  

I mentioned the irony of trying to save journalism with an off-the-record event. More ironic is to address the future of media and marketing and yet somehow keep the whole enterprise secret from the world.

How do our honored invitees know how honored they are, if they’ve never heard of the honor they are being honored with?  And how do our co-hosts and partners know whom to invite if they don’t know who is champing at the bit to participate?

There is a lesson here somewhere. And I’d entertain ideas for how to square this circle in 2018. For now I can only do what I do best  — criticize (in this case, myself) — and what I do worst: fill a room with people who wish to save the world.

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